Why Harmful Psychotherapy Is Not Discusssed

Unlike the cases of medical malpractice, the cases when therapy harms are not discussed broadly enough to be known to the general public, and that is for several reasons.

Firstly, the harm received in psychotherapy is very difficult to prove in most cases, since the process takes place in a private setting, where there is no one to witness the interactions between the therapist and the client.

Secondly, even if the client can prove that certain events did take place during the therapy, what is and isn’t harmful is often arbitrary, since the practice of psychotherapy, unlike the medical practice, doesn’t use any objective measurements to define the problem in the same way the medicine uses medical tests results to diagnose the illness. For this reason, psychotherapy is often defined as a healing “art”, not a science, which gives the practitioners a lot of freedom to practice however they want. Sadly, it means that the practitioner often has the legal ground to defend his/her methods, even when the client reports them as harmful. In those cases, the therapy failure is explained away by the client’s unwillingness to do the work. Read more about the dangers of the “artistic” approach to psychotherapy here.

Thirdly, the client, who complains about his/her therapist, is often not taken seriously not only by other professionals, but, unfortunately, also by the lay public. This has a lot to do with the so-called “stigma” or, better say, just an old-fashioned prejudice the society has toward those who seek professional psychological help. The immediate common reaction of an average lay person to someone, who is or has been in therapy, is that s/he must be “troubled”, which is equated to “mentally disturbed”, and, therefore, her/his testimony shouldn’t be given much credibility.

Last, but not least, a lack of detailed FACTUAL information about the psychotherapy process available to consumers plays a big role in the overall ignorance about psychotherapy’s harmful potential. Because of such lack of information, the average lay person is not educated and not sophisticated enough to understand what type of trauma can occur during therapy and how it happens.

For all of the above reasons, those who were harmed in psychotherapy often suffer in silence. The only places where they usually get support are online mental health forums, where they can reach out to those who have gone through the same experience. No professional help is available to them because the mental health community is oblivious to the extend of this problem. This is shameful and it has to change.

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4 Comments  comments 

4 Responses

  1. Michelle Mallon

    A fellow survivor just told me about this site today and I have to say that I am really excited about what I am reading here. In addition to being a survivor of therapist abuse, I am also a mental health professional. To be perfectly honest with you, what I have experienced not just with the abuse I experienced but also in the aftermath trying to report the abusive therapist, I discovered a really troubling dark side to the mental health profession that I had no idea existed. I get the sense reading the articles here, that the creator of this site has seen some of the same things I have seen. This is absolutely a systemic problem and I believe it is going to take many voices crying out together to demand change. I would personally like to thank you, Marina, for creating this site andetting this very important information out to the public.
    Michelle Mallon, MSW, LSW

  2. Marina Tonkonogy

    Hi Michelle,

    Thank you. I’ve created Therapy Consumer Guide precisely for the purpose of raising awareness about many systemic issues in our profession. Yes, the profession does have a dark side, which is very disturbing to me and many others who were harmed by it, especially given that this is not recognized by professionals and many clients alike. Also, like you, I was more harmed by the aftermath of my abuse while trying to get help than by the abuse itself. In all honesty, I hold those practitioners who failed to acknowledge the reality of my abuse more responsible for my emotional damage than the abusers. This is a long story. I am planning to write and post it here some day along with other articles.

    Feel free to share your thoughts, insights and ideas on the subject along with possible solutions, if you feel like it. You can do it either through commenting or by contacting me personally through the contact form.

    Last but not least, I am sorry you were one of those who had to experience this form of abuse. As a fellow survivor, I understand the unique nature of it. As a mental health professional, I understand that a client, who was harmed by a therapist and who also happens to be a professional herself, experiences a double harm: from the abusive therapist and from her chosen profession. At least, this has been my experience. As I said, I felt more damaged by the profession itself than by the specific professionals who abused me because I never received adequate help after trying to work it out with other practitioners many times.

  3. Anonymous

    Thank you for your excellent article.

    My sole attempt at any type of counseling or therapy was extremely harmful. I gave serious consideration to taking legal action and reporting the infractions, going so far as to hire legal counsel. I was advised to keep silent. My evidence was anecdotal, at best, and the therapist was well-respected and highly-regarded.

    Flash forward many years, and that abusive individual is a convicted, registered sex offender with a revoked medical license. Yes, it’s good to see that he can no longer practice, his reputation is irreparably destroyed, and he’ll never regain his former status. But, I regret the untold number of patients who were hurt along the way and wish I could have done something.

    • Marina Tonkonogy

      Thank you for your comment and my apologies for not responding sooner. I seem to have missed a few comments these days.

      I am sorry you were harmed in therapy like many others. I wouldn’t torture myself with guilt over not having taken legal action. I’d rather focus on acknowledging that finally the perpetrator was held accountable and he will no longer harm anyone.

      Legal actions are very complicated in therapy situations and they have little chance of succeeding if there is a lack of hard evidence. Each survivor of such harm makes the best decision for themselves at the moment. I understand the desire to protect others from harm but that should not be done at the expense of your own well-being.

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